DAMASCUS, Syria — In the two-month-long uprising against Syrian authorities, the southern town of Daraa has been at the heart of the unrest, and the inspiration for many other Syrians as protests have spread across the country.
But Daraa’s defiance has come with a cost: Civilians who have fled the town in the past week described scenes of terror, with arbitrary detentions and snipers on rooftops.
One young man, Mohammed, said he walked 13 miles through forests Tuesday to evade capture after his parents were arrested by security forces. He feared that if he did not leave Daraa, he would be next.
Protesters say they are rising up against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to bring democratic rule to Syria after decades of autocracy. The government claims it is being besieged by “terrorists,” and last week state television aired several “confessions” by detained Daraa residents.
In a shift, officials on Friday conceded that some protesters have legitimate demands and are demonstrating peacefully, and the government has said it will begin a process of “national dialogue.” The government also said it has pulled its troops from Daraa. That move is being watched closely as a potential change in strategy after weeks of increasingly violent tactics that appeared to do little to dampen protesters’ willingness to take to the streets.
Mohammed’s problems began when he was caught taking video footage of soldiers who had been patrolling the city. The soldiers took Mohammed’s identification card, he said, and several days later authorities showed up at his home.
“They said that if I keep quiet and they hear nothing about me for the next four days, then they will release my mother from prison,” said Mohammed, who, like others, spoke on the condition that his last name not be published because he fears the consequences of speaking out. “If my name comes up, they said they will kill her.” Mohammed said he does not know where his parents are being held.
Already, he said, thousands of people from Daraa and the surrounding area have been detained — an assertion that has also been made by human rights groups. “They are holding them in schools and in the main stadium in the city,” he said. “No one has been allowed to go to mosques to pray for weeks.”
Mohammad said that his family is well-regarded and has influence in the area. “But in this situation, it no longer counts,” he said.
Another Daraa resident, Noor, said she left her studies in Damascus and returned home to Daraa to see her family when violence began, but fled the town five weeks ago. “I went down but ran away the next day. It was a Friday and people were being shot in front of me,” said Noor. “There were bodies lying on the streets.”
A Sunni Muslim dressed in the latest Western style, Noor displayed cellphone video taken from her house of security officers using sticks to carry out mock beatings in a neighborhood of Damascus.
Videos apparently recorded in Daraa show far more horrific scenes. The clips show homes that have been torched, and cars flattened by tanks. The content of the videos, and the accounts of witnesses, could not be independently verified, but they are consistent with the claims of human rights groups who have documented the violence in Daraa.
Marwan, a student from Daraa, has also recently fled the town for Damascus.
“The security came to my family’s house looking for me last week. My father told them I was in Beirut studying. They came after me because my sister’s friend was arrested and he gave my name as being his friend,” he said. He is now hiding out among friends in the Syrian capital.
Amer, a 22-year-old law student from Daraa, said he does not know whether to be hopeful or despairing about the path his country has taken. “We wish we had the situation in Libya. At least they have some feeling of freedom,” he said. “We are afraid. But I think there is no way back now.”